Pretoria - The discovery of fossils of a new species of human relative in South Africa, named Homo naledi by scientists, will not only enhance understanding of the past but give insight into the future, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Thursday.
“This chamber really gives us a window of understanding our past, beginning to gain more knowledge about our present moment and also gives us insight of what our future could look like,” Ramaphosa said at Maropeng, in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site near Johannesburg.
“For us to understand how these species lived right here in South Africa, right here on the African continent, is something that is a great step for us. This is a giant step to understand who we are.”
The discovery of Homo naledi (H. naledi) was announced at a prestigious event attended by international scientists, academia, top government officials, local and international media.
Ramaphosa said September 10 will go down in history books “as one of those moments in which the world learnt something new and remarkable”.
He said the discovery revealed a lot about human ancestors.
“In time, it may reveal much about ourselves. This find will generate interest from beyond the scientific community. It will inspire poets and writers to revisit Africa’s rich oral traditions, and to imagine ways to retell the story of our common ancestry,” he said.
“It will encourage us to enquire further about the whole scope of human existence, the world around us, and the world before us. We expect that it will catch the imagination and stimulate the interest of people across the world – people who are excited about knowledge and learning.”
Maropeng, the visitor centre to the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, was opened almost 10 years ago.
“We did not imagine then that a new species would be unearthed, telling us more about our human journey than we knew before. We now know that research in the Cradle of Humankind will yield yet more information for decades to come,” said Ramaphosa.
He said the discovery highlighted that despite individual differences in appearance, language, beliefs and cultural practices – humans are bound by a common ancestry.
The deputy president said the South African government has fulfilled its international responsibility to Unesco to protect, preserve and showcase the world heritage site which has “outstanding universal value” to the world.
“On behalf of the people of South Africa, I invite the world to visit the Cradle of Humankind Visitor Centre, Maropeng, where this new find will be on display for one month,” said Ramaphosa.
The extensive research was conducted by the Evolutionary Studies Institute at the University of Witwatersrand, host to the Department of Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation Centre of Excellence in the Palaeosciences.
Ramaphosa commended the “underground astronauts” who worked on the project, which he said gives hope that modern challenges including hunger, social exclusion and underdevelopment can be overcome.
The species have been named Homo naledi after the Rising Star cave at the world heritage site. Naledi means ‘star’ in Sesotho. The H. naledi species is believed to be more than 2.5 million years old.
Consisting of 1 550 numbered fossil elements, the discovery is the single largest fossil hominin find yet made on the African continent. The initial discovery was made in 2013, in the Rising Star cave, by Wits University scientists and volunteer cavers.
The fossils, which have yet to be dated, lay in the chamber 90 metres from the cave entrance.
So far, the team of scientists and cavers have recovered parts of at least 15 individuals of the same species – a small part of the fossils believed to be in the chamber.